Wales Rally GB - Random musings by Paul Hernaman

As work and house moves have faded away the lure to go out and stand in a forest to have mud and stones thrown at me after standing in cold, damp conditions for an hour beforehand has risen. Last year I wandered across to Wales to watch the rally on the Friday/Saturday with partial success. The partial bit being despite getting up at an early hour the crowds to get into Dyfi and Gartheiniog had to be seen to be believed and accordingly I missed a chunk of the first run. Unlike the good old days of 60 stages over 4 or 5 days the standard WRC format means there are typically only about a dozen venues for the whole event most of which are used twice. In turn this means there are often only about 15 car parks across the 3 days to fit everyone in.

So a new year and a new plan. In terms of seeing the works cars the best thing to do is go to the shakedown stage where the top 40 cars can go through 4 times in about 3 hours. In theory they aren’t flat-out but in practise as the WRC events this year have been so close and all 4 teams have won events they don’t hold back much. Typically the shakedown stage is about 3 miles long and for Wales Rally GB (ok - bored with this already - further references will be to Wales) the shakedown was in Clocaenog forest. The bad news was first car was 8am so work backwards from there it terms of arrival, travel and alarm call. Looking at the first day proper the choice was Myherin, Sweet Lamb or Hafren. While the first and last are much longer , charging down one hill, across a valley and back up another mean that even with the spectator loop in the middle Sweet Lamb is not Mickey Mouse, has great viewing and you don’t have to walk up a mountain to get to the stage once you’ve parked the car. In the forward planning I figured having been soaked and chilled for 2 days would be enough for the rally fever to wear off and I could wander back to Suffolk after that rather than do the weekend as well.
Having got clearance/permission from Mrs H by the start of October I made plans via Late Rooms and the rally website. Whereas you used to be able to park up by footpaths, walk in for free and stand 3 ft from the cars the “what-used-to-be free-but-now-we-charge-for-your-own-good-health-and-safety-and-security” mob rules, so yellow roads are no-goes and you pretty much have to go to designated car parks. For this you buy a day pass allowing you access to all the stages on any given day. In practise you’ll be lucky to make more than one venue given the loops only last about 2 hours and because there’s finite places to go you’ll be lucky to get in (see above). A day pass means the organisers can sell as many as possible and stick their fingers in their ears, shut their eyes and shout “La, la, la” at the prospect that there might be some crowding at specific venues on any given day. So how much for this bargain opportunity? That’ll be £28 per person (not car) per day thank you very much or we’ll do you an event pass for £99…Weirdly the Sweet Lamb hospitality at £160 for a coffee, meal in a tent stuck down in the bottom of the stage sold out, where are these people and what can I sell to them? Knowing I was unlikely to use much of the facilities hotels were booked for economy rather than luxury. Even so plenty were sold out but I secured a single room in Bala and another in Aberystwyth from where its a short drive east to Sweet Lamb.

Despite the run of calamitous weather headlines run every other day by the Daily Express (they have to keep the other days free for more news on the impending resurrection of Princess Diana) the forecast didn’t look half bad. So much so I was beginning to wonder whether I was going to overheat with my normal selection of thermals and layers. Setting off from Suffolk in glorious sunshine and 15C I took my normal route of A14, M6, M6 toll (avoiding the forever M5/6 roadworks), M54, A5 route across. Sure enough approaching Cambridge the signs came up for trouble on the A14 twixt Cambridge and Huntington. Given this happens virtually every day I suspect its some form of royalist payback for Huntingdon having harboured Oliver Cromwell. The good news is that there’s a decent divert if you carry on towards St Neots and then head north. This also allows you to see the extent of works going on for the 4 year project that should finally make things better on the A14, albeit the amount of stuff being built around Cambridge probably means it’ll just be a reset. With only about 5 minutes lost the rest of the journey was passing fine and soon enough I’d made good time to Llangollen. As I’m partial to the old puffer or two I had time to see how things were progressing on the Llangollen steam railway. I like the way that they estimate jobs in decades and extending the line from the middle of nowhere to Corwen has been one such. The good news is the new station at Corwen is well under way and the railway line runs close to the A5 for a fair part of the way. It really looks like it could be ready by next year. Ok if you walk slowly there’s about 15 minutes worth of entertainment in Corwen on a quiet Wed afternoon but its progress - honest ! As this took me up to all of 2.30pm a diversion/note check for Clocaenog the next day was no major diversion before dropping down to Bala for the evening. Heading north on the B road from Corwen and then west to drive down the B road that goes past the stage revealed everything was set up with car park signs and clearway no stopping signs up for miles either side of the entrance. There was then a nice flowing B road down to just short of Bala.

Bala has the biggest lake in Wales and can be beautiful when the sun shines or distinctly chilly when it doesn’t and the wind whips across the lake. By the time I got there things were on the cusp. I’d splashed out a heady £45 for a single room in the White Lion Royal Hotel - a hundred year old black and white building which turned out to be part of a “Brains bitter” chain spread across Wales. As I arrived in reception the staff were busy taping cobwebs to the walls. Asked if I was scared by this ghostly appearance pending the arrival of the US import of halloween (Is Trump the trick or treat?) I replied that my missus would thump me for putting cobwebs up given she strives to keep spiders homeless and the household spotless. Nonetheless the Liverpool couple running the place were very friendly and no cars in the car park were on bricks so clearly they didn’t have cousins over. Asked if the rally was treating them well he replied that all 25 rooms were sold out for 4 nights, Norwegians and Belgians in several of the rooms were multiple repeat visitors with the Belgians bringing their own beer and that he was happy to do breakfast at 6am rather 7.30am if that’s what people wanted. I reckoned that was about £12000 of business for them so everyone was clearly happy. All I wanted was a clean bed and room and in that respect everything was just fine. I did end up in a 10 foot square attic room with the WC 2 paces from the bed with no dividing wall between them but fortunately no smells so what was there to moan about?

Having unpacked it took 10 minutes to take in the High Street and then visit the town’s landmark - an earthen Motte and Bailey castle rising 50 ft above the surroundings. Having reached the summit I encountered 2 teenage lads trying to enjoy their home made reefers who were a bit put out to be interrupted, but as they were mellowed out they moped off in best teenager fashion and I followed at a suitable time after taking in the view, roughly 1min 15 secs as most of the view is adjacent rooftops and aerials…
Dinner was very good straightforward pub menu but with about 40 choices of main course and the draught beer was fine so a place worth considering for such jaunts in the future?

The WRC cars had a makeover for 2017 and rather than being watered down they got some steroids so they are more powerful (about 400bhp), wider and have lots of wings and things so they look like descendents of the winged Audi Quattros from the good old bad old days the only difference being they have working suspension as well. The lure of the cars together with excellent tv and redbull tv coverage through the year and the crowds from last year made me conclude I needed to be at Clocaenog at…6am so getting up at 5am was required. An early night aided by the beer did the trick. All was pitch black until the arrival at the stage where I duly joined a queue going nowhere having turned on to the forest track at 6am. Getting to the last few remaining parking places took half an hour and involved driving past the 100 motorhomes that had parked up the night before. The weather was still not bad so old trainers rather than wellies were on for a tramp up to the stage. The diagram to get in was slightly confusing and so a couple who I estimated to be about 60 compared notes with me as to the way in. “Must be 20 years since we did this” he said, adding “But with the new cars I had to come out and look so we threw the old mattress in the back of the van and came out, looking forward to the hotel tonight mind!” His wife seemed ok with this…
Figuring the stage out in the dark was a bit of a challenge but there was a nice section that started 45 left over crest, downhill into fast slight right and dip then rise to backward 90 right (map116:0521/25301/2 to 050527) The road was in beautiful condition and hundreds of head touches lit up the area as folks established their positions. I plumped for just before the fast right so as to see the exit from the crest and then through the fast right and setting up for the tight right, about 10 secs from start to finish. Something approaching daylight turned up about 10 to 8 and the RAF put in some low passes so we didn’t get too carried away by what a rally car can do but cloud and trees meant you couldn’t see them. At last time for the cars!

First through was Ogier in the Fiesta. You can hear the cars from about a mile off in a general series of fire and brimstone bangs and pops plus the noise of the tyres trying to rip the road apart for grip. I guessed his first pass to be at about 80%. Next up Tanak in the next Fiesta driving like a angry tiger released from a cage and full-on attack,the pace through the fast right being enough for the back to kick the front wheels offline and pointing towards the ditch before he took back command. Next Evans who was even faster but just flowed through everything in a style that reminded me of Mikkola in an Escort taking less road but more speed. I’d seen him playing with an R5 Fiesta at the Castle Coombe rallyday back in September and thought just how comfortable he looked throwing a car round. Next through were the Hyundais looking lairy to a man. All of them needed 2 foot wider roads than the Fords as they crabbed sideways from start to finish of a bend. Surprisingly it was the tarmac man Sordo that seemed to be putting the most into things. The Toyotas seemed to want to understeer into bends but were quick and the Citroens were hard to read for pace but seemed to have got rid of the back end kicking out as had afflicted them earlier in the year and done Kris Meeke no favours. As people have said Meeke seems to have picked up Colin McRae’s outlook of pushing on regardless of what the car will do. Going back further I wonder whether he is like Ronnie Peterson and just drives through problems but at the cost of not being able to set a car up as well. Using the same road another 3 times meant a good intake of bravery pills by some with Jari Mati Latvala probably winning the prize for squeezing the most out of things and causing a few people to step back even with a bank and line of trees between him and them.

After a short pause the WRC2 cars then came out to play. These are serious motors of themselves looking and sounding like hatchbacks that have been down to the Tonka toys factory for finishing off. Its also the finishing school for hotshots aiming to get full works drives. A few guys stood out. The Skodas seem to be just ahead of the Fiestas and then the others slightly behind that. A guy called Pontus Tidemand has won the title this year in a Skoda and looked quick but under control. His team mate a 21 year old called Ole Christian Velby looked quick…Similarly Teemu Sunninen in a Fiesta has already had a fast run in a full WRC car and looks like he’s the real deal but likely to get through a number of bodyshells before he becomes world champion. Sure enough Velby rolled his car on stage 5 and Sunninen spent his rally making up for 3 mins lost to a puncture that I’d bet was after a visit to a ditch. Pleasingly not far off these cars are several Brits, Tom Cave, Gus Greensmith, David Bogie and Matt Edwards, the latter running on scraps of a budget vs the other guys. Peculiarly Kris Meeke and Craig Breen appeared for their last couple of runs in with theWRC2 guys. A story of cutting cost corners duly emerged. Citroen had tested in France rather than Wales saying the latter was too expensive. Once on the shakedown they found the car didn’t work and instead of having a remote service van like the others they had to go all the way back to Deeside to reset the cars. Given the rumours that Citroen were looking to pay Ogier £9m pa to come back to them next year it all seemed very strange. Later in the day it turned out my visual instincts had been on the money when checking on WRC.com it turned out Evans had been 2 seconds faster than anyone else on a 2.1mile stage while Tanak, Sordo and Latvala were then covered by a second. All boded well for the next day.

As the first real stage was a silly sub one mile circuit of a trotting track Thurs evening I headed to Aberystwyth and the next nights accommodation. A clear run down through Bala, Dolgellau and Machynlleth saw all the signs up for stages in the following days and me on the outskirts of Aberystwyth before 2pm. On a dullish day in Oct there’s not too much to do there unless you’re at college or going to the national library of Wales. Not being either I followed the signs to the Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge railway not having been there for decades. Surrounded by retail sheds I parked up and found the ticket office to ask if there was return trip possible the girl on the till said the last round trip left at 2pm but as its 5 minutes late you’ve got 3 mins to get to the train and so as the last passenger I got on, got to be lucky some days haven’t you?
I had been shepherded to a specific carriage by the guard and sat down in an empty row. Behind me in the carriage was a woman with a grown up son and an equally grown up dog that looked like a failed overweight Labrador. Sure enough within 5 minutes the dog decided that it would be worthwhile giving me a good sniff by clambering up the seat. To a degree fair enough as I had my oldest Barbour and muddy jeans on from standing out in the elements but tugging of the lead eventually persuaded the mutt to get down.

The ride out from town turns into a superb gentle climb up a hillside looking across a valley with the tree covered hills turning a multitude of Autumn colours. While trying to enjoy this vista the mother then engaged in a painful discussion on the mobile phone with her sister about a gas bill that went on and on until blissfully the signal dropped out and she was forced into silence other than talking to a deaf/dumb dog that had long ago learnt to ignore anything she was saying on the basis that 99% of it was hot air that was best ignored. I had the option to move forward a row and took it… Moving forward a row took me closer to grandparents with a 2 year old boy. The journey to Devils Bridge takes an hour and sure enough “are we nearly there yet?” syndrome started to cut in after about half an hour. The grandparents tried their best to restrain him without thumping but a couple of attempts at trying to dismember the carriage by banging on the window and trying to rip the seat apart still occurred. I know history looks back on Egyptian child sacrifice as bad form but maybe they had their reasons… The train did end up in cloud at 500ft but at the top while mooching around a chocolate shop I heard the news from a group of Irish visitors of Elfyn’s fastest time and took comfort of the economic benefits of rallying in the community as they and I bought overpriced bars of cocoa beans to take back to their loved ones.

After the ride back to town I drove round to my seafront hotel where the remains of sand, rocks and sandbags showed the after effects of its most recent battering the previous weekend. The Belle Vue Royal hotel was a suitably dull establishment which looked to have last had a royal visitor pre 1900 but came with an en-suite bath with plenty of hot and cold water which I dutifully sank into to refresh after the days outings. Refreshed and uninspired by the hotel food I walked round the corner to a Wetherspoons style pub with offers every night on something or other and went for the steak and chips and pint of Old Speckled Hen for a combined £8 and found to my surprise that while smallish the meat didn’t appear to be horse and had some taste to it.

With Sweet Lamb running at 11am and only about 15 miles away I could actually have breakfast before leaving and still get to the stage in plenty of time. Just as well…Even arriving 2 ½ hours before the first car the place was heaving. All was well organised and the marshals very polite with 3 lanes checking tickets and giving out programmes (you do get one a day for your £28). Again the main parking area was full within 10 minutes of my getting there and so the rest were stacked on the sides of roads etc. Instead of the grey of Thursday, the Friday was stunning blue skies albeit only 2C when I got to the top of the stage so the thermals weren’t in vain but I did smear suncream on my face in the expectation of rosy cheeks (she’s a nice country girl) later in the day. The parking is very close to the stage so there’s no need for rushing off and I sat reading in the car for an hour to pass the time and listen in to those around. This part of Wales was now populated by the natives plus Irish, French, Dutch, Belgiums, Germans, Norwegians, Italians and Estonians (Tanak fans). Everyone super friendly and no one talking about Brexit or groping politicians and “celebrities”. All very civilised.
Time to get down to the stage and take in the view. The stage was run in the reverse direction to last year so the spectator view was a long adverse camber right on the other side of the valley, downhill into a hay chicane to slow for bridge, disappear behind trees for a few seconds then across bridge hard on the power through 90 left, big crest on exit and immediate drop slight left into bowl, long hairpin right into uphill tighter hairpin left, straight for 1/10 into watersplash immediate 45 left then long drag uphill (at least ¼ mile) with minor kinks into hairpin right, further climb to top with crest at top and then finally disappearing out of view. Overall just under 1 ½ minutes in view. I choose a spot looking back to the exit of the watersplash and observed 5 guys above me from the “PRL” (Professional Rally Lookers) as they proclaimed themselves, who not only had foldable chairs but an elaborate see through plastic igloo in the shape of a portaloo to go round each chair, plenty of folk were amused/impressed by their efforts. Just before the first car arrived a helicopter arrived at the top of the horizon and a couple of people alighted. Subsequently I discovered this was Dave Richards the new MSA chief coming out to have a look. Given his plans a few years back for everyone to have to compete in 1.3 Group N grotboxes that nearly killed rallying 15 years ago let’s hope he sees the light this time round…

Time for car 1! For the first day the top cars run in world championship order so it was Ogier, Tanak, Neuville, Latvala, Sordo, Evans, with Breen and Meeke another couple back. With Ogier on the start line news came through of the times on the previous stage Myherion where Evans had gone fastest and was now in the lead so that pumped the crowd. Despite behind the other side of the opposing hill everyone could hear Ogier start the stage and even a quick glimpse on the horizon before tumbling down into view on the right hander, the car flowing through on full power, a dip of the nose to slide through the chicane, a brief respite through the narrow bridge and then back on the power for the crest and then huge air for 30 yards, just a flash to respond before the back kicks up and more air and down into the pair of hairpins and then back on power, set the car up to slide left through the watersplash for the following left and then power all the way up the hill. Towards the top of the climb is a kink left which instead of lifting is the cue to change up from 5th to 6th gear before going hard on the brakes for the next hairpin and up through the gears again and a final bit of air before the car disappears out of view running across the skyline. On the final crest the car is far enough away to see the car flying and only hear the change of engine note a second later. The engine has been popping, banging and roaring for over 90% of the time and you can hear the tyres and transmission ripping away at the road to get more grip like rubberised pneumatic drills throwing up four plumes of mud and spray. Everyone looks at each other grinning before the next car sets off.
Tanak is a near duplicate of Ogier in the other Fiesta. The modern cars have fabulous suspension set-ups and travel. This allows a soft spring set-up that just soaks up yumps with no rebound and massive traction rather than crashing around from hole to hole. Neuville is next up and from the first adverse camber right hander to disappearing out of view the Hyundai is using way more road and clearly doesn’t like to turn in to corners without serious persuasion. Its not hard to see why the drivers keep knocking corners off the cars this year. Latvala’s Toyota wants to understeer but he’s fully on top of it hustling the car along. Then Evans appears and he just floats the car through the whole sequence almost as if there’s a magnet under the centre of the car meaning the car will stay on the road come what may and the wheels will just point wherever they need to go next. Super smooth. Finally the Citroens hove into view and after the panics of the previous day they are very respectable with slightly scaled down Hyundai movements but plenty of pace.
With a commentary in the stage times flow back and Ogier has just won the first run through but there’s only 1 second covering the fastest 6. The expectation had been for the stage to be a slower format run the opposite way round this year and with a big chicane before the bridge but the time has been shaved down from 2.49 to 2.44.5 on the first run through…good these new cars!
Once the works cars are through the following are due through at minute intervals so there is a car on the go in view all the time and it’s a case of deciding which to follow when. With 30 WRC2 cars in the field this is no hardship and they keep the pace up. Its only really when we get down to the last 20 runners (out of 75 starters in the international event))that the pace falls off and the passage of time shows itself. The first couple of Mitsubishi Evos are being run by guys who are in the top ten of BTRDA events and the cars just look clumsy, not because the drivers don’t know what they are doing but because the WRC2s are so agile against what is now 20 year old technology. There is still a cheer for 40 year old technology mind as a change of rules this year allows national spec cars in as well and there’s a Mark 2 BDA Escort singing out to 9000rpm on the straights sounding like nothing else, even if it takes forever on the twisty bits. Mike Broad, the old Vauxhall co-driver is one of the commentators and certainly has a senior moment about then!
And then that’s it for a couple of hours. With glorious sunshine the couple of hours between runs is no great hardship and it’s a 5 minute walk back to the car park and portaloos. With the sun still shining and a heady 8C almost worthy of an afternoon nap…
For the second run I decide to go right down to the first crest after the bridge having checked I can still see right back up the stage and despite the thousands of people there (no one can remember as many there before) I’m able to get within 20 ft of the stage on a bank so the press standing below aren’t a major problem. There’s a debate about whether the stage will be quicker second time through. There’s some cutting up in the tighter hairpins but otherwise it looks good and the sun has been drying things out.
Close up the cars are even more impressive over the crests. On landing from the first big crest there’s less than a second before having to deal with the next and the car’s just do it with the drivers full on the throttle. The top ten are fully 4ft off the ground I should add and you can see deep under the wheelarches as the wheels drop down. As I’m marvelling at this car 20 Yazeed Al Rajhi in a 2015 Fiesta WRC comes down into view. Seemingly he’s doing everything right albeit at a slightly slower pace and he’s been through once before when it bizarrely comes apart at my feet. The back kicks high up at the crest and the car lands nose first at about 60 degrees, bounces off the nose for 10 ft and then comes down again at the same angle. The front is almost at a halt but the back wants to keep going and a lazy end-over-end takes place and the car rocks to a halt on the roof in the middle of the road. Both inside are perfectly fine and there’s a polite round of applause as they step out (we may have lost an empire but we’re still British damnit!) and Yazeed takes a bow. The car isn’t as happy with most of the front end lying in the road and the impact has been enough to pop out the rear side window. Nonetheless I expect the marshals to roll the car where it is and push it well out of the way on its four wheels that are still firmly attached. Instead they turn the car and right it half on the bank and there was a moment when I (and a few others) thought it might topple down. All can be seen on youtube by looking up Rally Wales and Yazeed.
Fair play to the marshals only one car was mildly impeded during all this and the rest can carry on as if nothing had happened.
Times come in over the commentary and Ogier has taken another 3 seconds off his time and is now 5% faster than last year. Times are also in from the final stage of the day Hafren. Wlfyn Evans is now 25 seconds up on everyone else and then there’s 6 guys covered by 10 seconds so plenty to play for in the rest of the event.
I stayed until the first of the Evos turned up as this was now 4.45pm and I was travelling back to Suffolk after this, or that’s what I intended...On a variation of what goes in must come out I got 300yds from my parking spot and stopped 2 miles short of the public road and joined the queue to leave. Nobody got shirty but it took 1 ¼ hours to get to the main road. I was musing that Myherin would have emptied out onto the same road but was still surprised things were this bad until finally reaching the main road. Coming in from the west in the morning I was completely unaware of the set of 2 way traffic lights for some very minor roadworks ¼ mile up from the stage exit meaning hardly anyone could get out before things backed up, bless the local council eh? Throw in a good half hour to traverse Newtown (there is a bypass going in that should be done by next year) and then another queue for the emergency dealing with a car on its roof on a straight piece of road and I’d lost 2 hours before I even left Wales. This gave plenty of time for the Highways Agency to shut the M54 and send me up to the A5 instead. On the plus side it was now so far beyond Friday night rush hour that the rest of the journey was easy!

Bits and pieces after the event.

The car parking had been a problem throughout the event and as far as I can tell every car park overflowed with cars parked for miles down the public highway. Fortunately it sounds like the police took pity through a combination of Elyfn Evans leading and winning and as one policeman said to Motorsport News “There aren’t enough tow trucks in Wales to deal with this lot”.
Looking closely at the program afterwards there’s a page devoted to event officials. On the marshal clubs there’s even a mention of…WECC so how did that happen?
So conclusions. The new cars are great to watch and well worth a revisit/first visit if you haven’t seen them in the flesh. The car parking situation is pretty grim and something needs to be done, I can see some form of bussing in for the future, but that’ll also need wide open spaces where the spectators can go in the stage rather than being fenced in which is what happened to me in 2016.
With a number of car parks open the night before motorhomes are definitely worth a look. A four berth can be hired for £300 a week in October. Eating at local pubs/hotels the night before and using the stage portaloos would keep down the less pleasant side of things. Together with an open rally pass for the event that would be £200 each for 4 people plus share of food, drink and fuel for the duration. Next year’s event has been moved forward to the beginning of Oct so even milder weather is a possibility as well.
And there’s all those straights and crests in Finland at the end of July next year. Rallytravel.com do a full escorted tour for £750…any takers???